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White House Press Briefing

Aired April 14, 2003 - 12:32   ET


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: ...the situation in Iraq in post-Saddam Iraq. They pledged to work together to closely assist the people of Iraq. They also discussed the peace process in the Middle East.

The topic of peace in the Middle East was a subject that the president also discussed with Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, as well as President Mubarak of Egypt. With the crown prince, he also discussed the importance of providing humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq.

And in one announcement for you, President and Mrs. Bush will welcome Prime Minister John Howard of Australia and Mrs. Howard their ranch at Crawford, Texas, on May 2nd through 3rd. Australia has stood as a strong ally and close friend on the major security challenges we face today. The president looks forward to extensive consultations and discussions with Prime Minister Howard about how to rebuild a liberated Iraq, ensuring the elimination of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, expanding global trade and advancing peace and stability in Asia and the Pacific region.

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Under plans on rebuilding Iraq, I mean, do we actually have a plan for restoring the police service and water system and government per se?

FLEISCHER: Indeed. And this is something that General Garner is in the region for the purpose of heading up, reporting to General Franks. And General Brooks in his briefing this morning, started to describe many of the operational features that are already under way.


FLEISCHER: General Brooks this morning, in the briefing from Doha.

Interestingly, one of the things that is increasingly being seen around Iraq is stepped up cooperation and participation from Iraqi citizens. It varies from region-to-region across the country, but in many cases it is engineers, people who have infrastructure ability to work with Americans and coalition partners in turning on water and repairing some of the infrastructure, getting the infrastructure up and going again. In other sectors, it involves the presence of increasing numbers of police patrols, et cetera, as General Brooks reported.


QUESTION: ... to nation-building?

FLEISCHER: No, it revolves exactly as we have said, that part of the military mission is the reconstruction phase designed and built into the military plan.

QUESTION: Have you got any feedback yet from Syria? And when you talk about the possibility of Iraqi officials going into Syria, do you know exactly have any for sure gone into Syria or are you just guessing?

FLEISCHER: No, we do know for certain that Iraqi officials have crossed the border and gone into Syria. And it's very important for Syria not to harbor those officials.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) of the 55?

FLEISCHER: I don't have specific information to report, no.

QUESTION: Have you got any feedback yet from Syria?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that Syria has received the message. Keep in mind, the United States does have diplomatic relations with Syria. We have an ambassador in Damascus. Syria has received the message not only from the ambassador, but from other officials in the government.

FLEISCHER: And I think it's important for Syria to recognize that not only is it important for the wise way to conduct diplomacy, but also as a way of sending a message to the people of a newly liberated Iraq, the people of Kuwait, others in the region who do not want to see Syria take in or harbor those who have been engaged in decades-long practice of tyranny, of brutality and persecution against the Iraqi people.

Why would Syria want to harbor those people? It's an important question, and we look forward to Syria's response to it.

QUESTION: In recent days, many announcements by senior officials about Syria's weapons of mass destruction have led people in other parts of the world to believe that Syria is probably next on the United States target list. And I'm wondering if you want to disabuse us of that notion.

FLEISCHER: Thank you.

Let me make two points. What's next on the United States target list is Iraq. What is next is exactly what we have described, which is completing the military mission in Iraq, because there still are dangerous places and there still is risk of pockets of fighting and resistance. What's next is the reconstruction of Iraq, working with Iraqis, working with the international community, working with the coalition to rebuild Iraq. If you want to know in the president's mind what is next, that is what is next.

In terms of Syria and chemical weapons, indeed, the president was asked a direct question yesterday: Does Syria have weapons of mass destruction? And indeed, as the president's habit, he answered the direct question. Syria does have chemical weapons, according to a report that was just released by the CIA to the Congress. It's a public document and an authoritative one.

FLEISCHER: And I brought to your attention earlier today, so when the president is asked a direct question, he answers it.

QUESTION: Both you and the secretary of state and the secretary of defense have talked about Syria's weapons, as well as about the Iraqis who Syria may be harboring, and have couched that all with a certain kind of warning saying, "It's time for Syria to understand." That is taken by many people as a threat.

FLEISCHER: Well, it is time for Syria to understand. This is a day of emerging liberation for the people of Iraq and it's important for President Asad of Syria, who is a new leader, a young man, to understand that the future needs to be different from the past and tha the Iraqi people deserve no less, the region deserves no less.

Syria is a nation that has long been on the list of terrorist nations. They should not do that. They should not be that way. No nation should be. And that's a message the United States will not be shy about saying to Syria or other nations.

QUESTION: Then what?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that what's next is, Syria needs to seriously ponder the implications of their actions in terms of harboring Iraqis who need not and should not be harbored. They should think seriously about their program to develop and to have chemical weapons. I think it's time for them to think through where they want their place to be in the world.

QUESTION: Shouldn't people take that as a threat?

QUESTION: How does the American military success in Iraq improve or does it improve the prospects for the Mideast peace process between Israel and the Arab world? You're going to come up with a road map; you could have come up with a road map at any time, but now it's going to come out after this military success. So are the prospects for that road map and for peace improve by the fall of Saddam Hussein?

FLEISCHER: Well, if you recall the president gave, what we said at the time, was a major address at the American Enterprise Institute, where the president talked about what he thought could happen as a result of changes in the Middle East and the importance of pursuing peace in the Middle East based on the road map which is soon to be shared with the Israelis and the Palestinians. It still remains contingent on Abu Mazen being able to successfully complete the appointment of his cabinet. But the president does indeed have high hopes that a variety of factors are coming together in the Middle East that can lead to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That is based in part on successful conclusion of a war that hopefully can change the dynamic in the Middle East.

Certainly, the absence of Saddam Hussein's payments now to suicide bombers can lead to greater security on the ground in the Middle East. The more security there is between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the more the prospects of making progress on the political front.

But it's also important to recognize -- and this existed prior to the war with Iraq that still exists today -- that there are a number of nations, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan which have played a very constructive role in helping to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority together. That continues.

And so there are a variety of signs of hope in moving forward on peace in the Middle East. It remains important for Abu Mazen to be able to complete the naming of his cabinet. We would like to see that happen. And we will continues, the president has said, to pursue this.

So the Middle East is a region under change right now. The president's hope and the president's effort were made to make that change in a positive peaceful direction.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) the American military success will send a message to the Israelis, as well as to the Arabs.

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it sends a message to nations that engage in terror, nations that engage in tyranny and nations that engage in the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that that is a route that does not lead to a good future.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on John's (ph) question? Is the road map open to revision?

FLEISCHER: Indeed, when the president announced the road map, he said that upon its presentation we will welcome contribution from the parties, and we will. We will welcome contributions from the Israelis, contributions from the Palestinians.

QUESTION: An Israeli spokesman has already said that they have a number of changes they would like to make. Are you discussing that with them (OFF-MIKE)?

FLEISCHER: Well, it hasn't been formally released to them. And so I think that working through the proper diplomacy, once the Palestinian cabinet is in and confirmed, the road map, as the president said, will be released.

And of course it is important to listen to the parties. Ultimately, as much help as the United States will be, and the United States under President Bush will be a tremendous help to the parties; so, too, some of the other nations in the region, the quartet -- but ultimately it's not a matter for the quartet or a matter for the United States or a matter for the Arab nations to deliver the peace. It does come down to a matter of the Israelis and the Palestinians working together to deliver the peace with the assistance of the United States and these other parties.

So their thoughts and opinions about the road map are important. We said that we will welcome contributions to it. But the direction of the road map is the direction to peace, and the president will fight for it. And that is increased security, the development of political consensus, and action on the ground by both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

QUESTION: On another subject. Is it the president's view now that enough has been achieved in Iraq that he can shift his focus, his attention, his public schedule to the economy and domestic concerns?

FLEISCHER: Well, even with what was happening in Iraq, which clearly was a presidential priority, much did happen on the domestic front. And so I think it might be worth somewhat of a review about what has taken place.

Here is what has been passed by the Congress and will shortly be sent to the president for signature.

The emergency wartime supplemental appropriation bill is heading this way. The president will sign it Wednesday morning. The Children's Protection Safety Act, which include the National Amber Alert System, is also coming to the White House for signature, which is a helpful way of protecting families and children. The smallpox compensation legislation, which is part of homeland security, has been passed by the Congress, and will be signed. And in a narrower measure, the tax relief for members of the armed services will be passed and will be signed.

During the last seven weeks, which, interestingly, is the longest period of time that Congress is in Washington in the entire year without a recess, Congress passed the following:

The House passed a ban on human cloning. The House passed bankruptcy reform. The House passed medical liability reform, which was a presidential priority. The House, earlier in February, passed welfare reform. And the House also just recently passed comprehensive energy legislation, including opening up the Alaska -- the ANWR facility for exploration. The Senate has taken action and passed the ban on partial-birth abortion, and the Care Act, the faith-based legislation, the charitable provisions.

So there's been a lot of activity in the Congress on these measures, and of course the Congress just passed the budget resolution, which is the necessary first step to getting the tax relief done.

In fact this is the first time -- this is only, I believe, the sixth time in the last 28 years that the budget resolution was passed prior to its April 15 statutory deadline.

So it still is early in the congressional cycle. A lot of action has taken place. The president has made a lot of phone calls. There have been meetings here; many of which you know about that, of course, didn't receive the attention they typically would if much of the public focus was on the domestic agenda.

So, yes, there is a lot of work both on the international front and the domestic front. The president is committed to doing both.

QUESTION: Just real quick. I mean, this is the first week he's gone out and done a big speech on the economy. There are plans to do another speech on the way to Crawford. We are seeing a change from what we've seen for the last several weeks over the course of the war. It seems like now in terms of his public schedule he's talking more about more about the economy. Is that what we are to expect in the weeks ahead, that he's done enough with Iraq that he can focus his public attention...

FLEISCHER: Well, I think, in terms of the president's mindset, he is still very strongly focused on what is happening in Iraq. Congress is gone and gone for two weeks.

There are going to be a wide number of appearances by administration officials throughout the states over the next two weeks; Cabinet and sub-Cabinet level. And the president, of course, is going to be speaking out tomorrow on the domestic economy because it's Tax Day. The American people are overtaxed. And the president also believes one of the best ways to create jobs in the economy is to continue to stimulate the economy.

The president will also have remarks on Wednesday on his way to Crawford and St. Louis.

So, yes, the president will increasingly speak out. But I do want to also advise you, we still are in a phase where the president is very much focused on what is happening on the ground so long as we have American men and women who remain in a combat zone.

QUESTION: Ari, back on Syria for a second. What do you want Syria to do with these Iraqis you say they are holding, turn them over to U.S. custody?

FLEISCHER: Well, Syria needs to broadly assess what role it wants to play cooperatively with the rest of the world and with its neighbors; and now with a newly liberated neighborhood, newly liberated Iraqi people, where the Iraqi people themselves have a strong message to Syria: Don't harbor these people who oppressed the Iraqi people.

So most importantly, the president wants Syria to get the message that they need to reexamine themselves, they need to examine their ties to terrorists, their harboring of terrorists, their harboring of Iraqi leaders and their development of weapons of mass destruction. So it's a broad message the president is sending to Syria: We hope that they will refocus.

As I mentioned, President Bashar Assad is a young leader. He is an untested leader. He has a chance to be a leader who makes the right decisions. We hope he does.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) contemplating sanctions?

FLEISCHER: Well, there are a variety of levers that are available in diplomacy. A variety of levers that are available. We're working bilaterally, multilaterally. And I think it's too soon to say what the final outcome will be.

But for the cause of peace, it's important for Syria to reexamine its role in the region. They are a state that sponsors terrorism. They have no reason to do that, to act like that. And certainly, they have no reason to harbor these Iraqi officials. They should not be able to find safe haven in Syria.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) rule out military action as part of the consequences?

FLEISCHER: Well, as we've always said, every region of the world is treated uniquely, every nation is treated uniquely. There are a variety of different levers that apply in different regions.

I will make a blanket statement as overall policy around the world, and that is that that is a statement that we don't make about anywhere, we always leave options on tables. But our course of action with Syria is focused on reminding Syria that this is a good time for them to reexamine their support of terrorism, and a good place to begin is with their harboring of these Iraqi leaders who have fled to Syria. They should not be allowed to find safe haven there.

QUESTION: So you are not taking military action off the table...

FLEISCHER: But I want you to be very measured in how you understand that when I say that as blanket statement around the world that we always give.

QUESTION: OK. And on the Iraqi leaders they're harboring, has someone -- following up the previous question -- has someone said exactly what Syria needs to do with these leaders, just to get more specific here?


FLEISCHER: I can assure you that there are conversations that are at the diplomatic level between the United States and Syria, as well as others in Syria, and we shall see what Syria decides to do. It's important for them to make the right decisions.


FLEISCHER: It's important for Syria not to harbor Iraqi leaders.

QUESTION: How much does the United States have to find in terms of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to vindicate the arguments that were made beforehand? Is a small amount that a terrorist could use sufficient? Or do you need a militarily significant quantity? FLEISCHER: Well, I have not heard any talk of quantification of it. As we have said repeatedly, this remains a military mission, our forces went into Iraq for the purpose of engaging in combat, and that was the design, that was the set-up, that was the mission.

There are other elements that are part of the armed forces, much smaller in number, that have the ability to find, and I'm in no position to judge what quantities. According to the United Nations resolutions, any quantity was prohibited, any quantity, and I'm not saying that as an effort to set a bar at any level or another level, because we'll find exactly what we find and the world will know.

Let me also add one other point to this question. While the inspectors were in Iraq, I want to remind you, we always maintained that one of the best ways, and we knew this from the results of the '90s, to find weapons of mass destruction was to interview Iraqi scientists out of the country.

We always said one of the best ways to find it would not be to hunt for it but to receive information from the people involved in the program, who for whatever reasons would turn on Iraq and tell us.

Certainly now, as the Iraqi regime passes into the dustbin of history, we will have conversations with people as they emerge. They're starting to emerge. And we believe that that will lead to more information available.

QUESTION: Is progress being made? Do you have a sense of how long it might take?

FLEISCHER: Well, that's an operational issue that I don't think I'm the one to give operational updates on. It is still part of the military operation.

QUESTION: How high up on the food chain do you think it goes in terms of the types of Iraqi leaders that you think might be in Syria? For instance, do you think that Saddam's sons might be there?

FLEISCHER: I'm not in a position to start naming names of who may or may not be there. Whoever it is, they shouldn't be. And this is not so much -- it is an issue between the United States and Syria, because we have expressed it to Syria, but it's an issue between the Iraqi people and Syria, the Kuwaiti people and Syria, even think about the Iranian people who fought years worth of wars with the leaders of Iraq to know that another nation, an Arab nation like Syria would take them in and harbor them, provide them safety?

That is why this is such an important issue. This is about fundamental human rights and the way people should be treated. Syria should not end up on the wrong side of that line.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on the Syria question. You're saying that you're intentionally leaving it sort of open and vague on whether or not military action is on the table, which you're saying it always is, but the British are saying today that it's not on the table, explicitly. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said, "We've made it clear that there are no plans for Syria to be next on the list."

Is there a difference here?

FLEISCHER: Well, I've already told you what is next on the president's list, and what's next on the president's list is Iraq.

QUESTION: In terms of beyond Iraq? In terms of what might be next in terms of military action? They're making it very clear...


FLEISCHER: I really have answered the questions about how we are approaching Syria, and as I mentioned to you, every region is different, we apply different levers in different places, and we shall see what the results are. I'm not going to go beyond that.

QUESTION: Since we talked last there appears to be a pretty firm deal in the Senate not to allow tax cuts higher than $350 billion. Does the White House still believe that that deal can be undone?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think it remains to be seen what the exact nature of what the senators have agreed is. There's some dispute among senators about it themselves.

From the president's point of view, what's most important is that we create the greatest number of jobs for the American people. Clearly, a tax bill...

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We're going to break away from Ari Fleischer's briefing to go over to the Pentagon.


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